'SNL' Stars, Sex in the Green Room: 40 Wild Years of The Groundlings
Everyone from Kristen Wiig to Kathy Griffin recalls the creativity and brutal competition that sent Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and others to work for Lorne Michaels -- or on to even greater success.
PAUL REUBENS (1974-80) Archie was kind of a legend at The Groundlings -- and part of his legend was that he turned down SNL. SNL was always a big force at The Groundlings. Just something that we all kind of were like, "If you're successful, this might be an option."
KATHY GRIFFIN (1985-92) The night Lorne came, Lisa Kudrow, Julia Sweeney and I were all auditioning for a spot, and he picked Julia. Lisa and I were crying that night at a diner somewhere. [Later] I was on a little show called Suddenly Susan for four years; it changed my life. She became f---ing Phoebe [on Friends]! We didn't understand there were other things. We all thought it was only about getting on SNL.
TRACY NEWMAN I think that once The Groundlings became the training ground or a farm company for Saturday Night Live, the group dynamic and camaraderie probably disappeared to a certain extent. It became a little bit dog-eat-dog. Even when I was there, it was already starting to be dog-eat-dog.
GRIFFIN We had to audition our sketches for one another before they went onstage. And, let me tell you, that's a Michael Vick dogfight right there. So you're with your friends and you guys all love each other, but it's extremely competitive. It's like football. And there are cuts just like football at every single level, and it's all about not getting cut. And then once you don't get cut, trust me, you never get comfortable. Because the weekend Lorne Michaels comes, you want to be picked.
KRISTEN WIIG (2004-05) The most important thing I learned there was how to write and really hone characters. I averaged about five sketches a week. Learning what it means to truly collaborate was a crucial skill when I got to SNL.
REUBENS My whole career is as a result of not getting SNL. I mean, I was almost on SNL. I was one of the 22 finalists. I knew I wasn't gonna get it ahead of time, before they officially told me. I literally, at the airport, called my parents and borrowed some money to produce The Pee-wee Herman Show.
AUSTIN I remember the moment he was first Pee-wee Herman. It was in a workshop being run by Phyllis Katz. She wanted to satirize The Comedy Store; she told each person to pick a type of comedian. Paul was the only one who couldn't come up with an idea. I suggested Just Jeff, an 18-year-old kid that Mitzi [Shore] would put on at 2 a.m. Just Jeff looked like Sirhan Sirhan. He would go onstage with a grocery bag full of props and do humor that wasn't funny. So I told Paul about this guy. He immediately got onstage and the Pee-wee Herman voice came out. He says to me at some point, "I don't know what to wear." I said, "Well, I have an old gray suit at home." So he shows up with white patent leather shoes, a white dress shirt and a red bow tie, puts it all together -- the costume never changed. His character was bratty and hostile. He bought these little Tootsie Rolls, the tiny miniature ones? And he would throw them into the audience and actually hurt people. I said, "No, you can't do that." So my contribution, I think, was to make him more gentle and loving and liked by the audience. He used to be a real ass.
REUBENS When I did The Pee-wee Herman Show there at midnight, there would be 20 or 30 people in the audience for the [Groundlings] late show, and during that show the lobby would fill up. 'Cause my show was sold out. We had a waiting list of hundreds of people. It created a little bit of an awkward situation for me within The Groundlings because I had this extremely happening and successful show and we still weren't selling out the late show. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese came when they were researching The King of Comedy -- if you screen it, De Niro's wearing a bow tie.
AUSTIN I left in '79. A division developed in The Groundlings toward the end of my tenure. I was the head of one division, people loyal to me, and then Tom Maxwell, who was artistic director after I left, who used to be my best friend before that, was the head of the other group. And a huge fight happened between these two divisions. The good vibes, the love had dissipated into something else. When I created The Groundlings, I created what we jokingly called the Austin Manifesto: "This is a laboratory where we all meet to create our work, whatever that work is. And we will take our work into the industry and create careers for ourselves. We will always have a home to return to, to work on our work." And it wasn't that anymore, it had become, "Let's just use it and get the hell out."
MAXWELL As I recall -- and again, this wasn't last week -- Gary announced he was resigning and it was … I mean, he had not discussed it with me prior to that.
TRACY NEWMAN It got very divisive between Tom and Gary. Gary has a whole other attitude about stuff. Gary had no business being a businessman. Tom didn't either, really. He is very creative and artistic but unlike most creative people is very responsible. He was the guy who made sure the show got done.
MAXWELL Gary had this vision. It takes a certain kind of energy to get something started from nothing, and he certainly had that. He had an energy and vision about what this could turn into and what it could be.
GRIFFIN Sometimes we would do shows that would bomb so badly that we would have a circle of tears afterward, and the whole cast would just go to the stanky back room with the ugliest couch you've ever seen. I personally f---ed three guys on that couch. I can't speak for the other girls.